Saturday, January 22, 2011

Third Sunday, Ordinary Time. "Repent": Accepting the gift of freedom which prepares the way for the new life of the Kingdom

A woman called in to a Catholic question and answer radio show the other day and said she had been raised in Catholic schools where they were told that if someone ate meat on Friday and died without repenting they would go to hell. She then asked "what happened when the Church lifted the "ban" (love that word!)to all the people who ate meat on Friday, knew it was a sin and died without repenting? Did they all get out?"

It is the nature of hell that there are no "exits". So, one would have to answer "no" to this sympathetic intercession for the sake of the damned. Of all the things for which one would need to repent, however, I am guessing that eating meat on a Friday when abstention was gravely obligatory would be one of the easiest sins for which to repent. God's mercy is far beyond our understanding, and though He does respect the wishes of those who persist in rejecting Him to the end of their lives, He is sensitive to the faintest wisp of sorrow on the part of sinners and in Christ has poured out the infinite graces of redemption so that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the Truth.

The Church, however, does not "ban" anything. For a time the Church did impose as a grave obligation the abstention from meat on Fridays as a communal, ecclesial, means of penitential participation in the death of the Lord. More recently the Church lifted the grave obligation attaching to this longstanding and venerable practice. What many failed to understand was that the Church continued to call for penance on Fridays in repentance for sins, both personal and communal, with abstention from meat or other forms of penance as a substitution. As a result of ignorance, and other factors such as lack of catechesis, very few now perform any practice of penance at all on Fridays. Our bishops published a pastoral letter on peace a few years ago and mentioned abstention from meat on Fridays as a means of interceding against war and performing penance for this crime so often committed against human life on a mass scale.

The Lord proclaims the Gospel way of life in our Scriptures today, and states that the pre-condition for the Gospel is repentance. Repentance is, simply, a sincere turning to God in love of Him.

"The movement of return to God, called conversion and repentance, entails sorrow for and abhorrence of sins committed, and the firm purpose of sinning no more in the future. Conversion touches the past and the future and is nourished by hope in God's mercy." (CCC 1490)

Sorrow for sin is very often absent today among those who profess to believe in the Gospel. Popes and bishops, as well as others, decry the long communion lines at Mass and the very short, or non-existent, lines at the confessional prior to Mass. As a convenience for the people of God, we offer confession every week on Saturday evening and some weeks takers are very few. Yet we all recognize we are sinners and often acknowledge the suffering that sin and evil bring into our lives and the lives of others. What has happened to the sense of sin which should lead to repentance, and to reception of the sacrament of Confession every time we commit a grave or mortal sin?

Longer lives and less thought of death, less preaching on the nature of sin and how to examine one's conscience, ambiguity among some who taught in the name of the Church about moral teaching, vague efforts at examination of conscience, lack of availability of the sacrament of Confession, these and so many more factors are part of the fall-off in sacramental repentance on the part of many today.

Societal trends which spurn holiness and chastity, the normal and happy way of life for human beings, and which glorify pornography and abuse of sexuality and drugs especially among the young and in their television, movies and music make it even more difficult to understand how the lack of these evils is even possible any more. So saturated is our society and media with these poisons that I am afraid that many parents may have even given up protecting their young people and may have resorted instead to simply and only ameliorating as much as possible their damaging and dangerous effects.

We all must pray for our parents that they will have the courage and honesty to remember that it is our childrens' friends who entice them into doing what they want to do and our parents who are responsible for calling and supporting their children to do what they ought to do. Indifference to a child's attendance at Sunday Mass, for example, completely undermines a parents' desire, however deeply, felt to teach by word and personal example the truth of the catholic Faith and the authority of Christ to command us to do certain things and shun others.

And repentance is necessary for all of us when we have failed to properly and consistently support those whose Faith is weak, including the Faith of our children. And when this is gravely so, we must repent with the help of the Lord in the sacrament of Confession.

"For freedom Christ has set us free." Until we accept the gift of our freedom and understand how this precious gift together with God's grace makes us like Him in dignity, holiness and happiness, I suspect that repentance may continue to be a difficult concept for many.

"Freedom and grace. The grace of Christ is not in the slightest way a rival of our freedom when this freedom accords with the sense of the true and the good that God has put in the human heart. On the contrary, as Christian experience attests especially in prayer, the more docile we are to the promptings of grace, the more we grow in inner freedom and confidence during trials, such as those we face in the pressures and constraints of the outer world. By the working of grace the Holy Spirit educates us in spiritual freedom in order to make us free collaborators in his work in the Church and in the world:

'Almighty and merciful God,
in your goodness take away from us all that is harmful,
so that, made ready both in mind and body,
we may freely accomplish your will.' "
(CCC 1472)

Confession cannot be a source of hope for us if we approach the Lord with a vague sense of our responsibility, expressed by saying things like, "I get angry sometimes" or "I get lazy" or "I don't tell the truth sometimes". Such vague formulations prevent us from taking responsibility for our real and free choices for evil and our rejection of good and of God's help in doing what is good and rejecting evil.

We would do better instead to acknowledge the concrete nature of our wrongdoing and say instead, "I got angry twice", "I told a lie once" or "I missed Mass twice on Sundays without a grave reason for doing so". This manner of repenting makes clear a number of things which lead to hope, among them, the reality that sin is concrete, not amorphous, and happens at a particular place and particular time under particular circumstances. How is this helpful? In fighting evil and sin I am prepared to see clearly and reject with God's help in the future the persons, places and things which, in my weakness, led to sin in the past. Decisions and circumstances which lead to sin are particular moments, are concrete, are rooted in the reality of my life and choices, and I can begin to acknowledge the gift of freedom which God has given me and which I can increasingly accept and grow into with His help. Grace builds on nature.

God always stands ready to help me to think and say and do the good thing which Christ teaches and for which He gives in Christ the grace or power to choose. The gift of freedom which He gives us in love He also preserves in love. In Christ He stands ready to undo and repair the sinful results of our misuse of freedom and to set us happily back upon the Gospel road to the Kingdom.

Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.


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